Few rock music memoirs have caught the attention of esteemed novelists such as Richard Ford, whose New York Times review of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (2016) exalts the musician as not simply an extraordinary artist and showman but a literary writer who “paradoxically” hails from the “humblest” of American locales. Over the last four and a half decades, Springsteen has been branded America’s working-class troubadour—at once an ‘every man’ and singular artist whose song catalogue has been compared to the best of Whitman and Steinbeck (not to mention Bob Dylan). His boisterous tales of the Jersey shore and more intimate Guthrie-esque portraits of post-industrial America are beloved in no small part because they tell truths from Bruce’s own life story and give voice to largely forgotten communities. Given his music’s definitive autobiographical components, what does Springsteen accomplish by publishing a 500-page version of his life saga?
Born to Run reads as a challenging mixture of several memoir subgenres: 1) working-class life writing—specifically, a variant of deindustrialization personal narratives; 2) music celebrity memoir; and 3) disability life narrative. Springsteen’s bombshell revelation of his long-term battle with what appears to be bipolar illness erupts a third of the way through the book, disrupting the familiar unfolding of his rise to superstardom. No one in his inner circle knew about his condition except for his manager Jon Landau and, eventually, his wife and band member Patti Scialfa. Yet while this destabilizes his autobiographical claims, it also frees him to double down on the rewards of autobiography as a tool for social change. His vulnerability finally allows him—and us—to interpret anew the connections between his life, his art, and political resistance. As he becomes more comfortable with exposing his “brilliant disguise,” Springsteen comes to function as a kind of ghost writer for his own text. He confronts what has haunted him throughout his past and re-envisions his future.
As with nearly every other aspect of his life, mental illness is intimately connected to his father. Doug Springsteen has achieved legendary status in his son’s music due to their acrimonious relationship, and his own untreated paranoid schizophrenia emerges as another potential ‘inheritance.’ This disclosure forces us to re-examine one central preoccupation of the text: Springsteen’s rise from a “working man’s son” to a multi-millionaire icon. Working-class and disability life narratives merge in his depiction of that fraught transition as a material and psychological metamorphosis that never quite holds.
As his devout fans know all too well, the “Boss” rejected his father’s life path from an early age. He hardly romanticized the grinding, often demeaning jobs available in Freehold, NJ. But while his realized dream of rock stardom clearly serves as a central outlet for his manic energy and artistic ambitions, the memoir reveals that Bruce envisions musicianship as physical labor. His sweat-drenched, four-hour concerts insistently announce his work ethic. In the memoir, two striking boyhood memories invoke his father’s complex legacy in shaping Bruce’s liminal class position. The first recalls bringing a modest lunch to his father working on the factory floor, where the din prevents them from hearing each other. The second functions as a rhapsodic ode to his father’s delivery truck, which makes a similar “metallic roar” as he proudly drives with his ‘pop’: “I’m riding with the king. My dad has taken me to work. Oh, what a world it could’ve been” (260-61). These twin vignettes encompass both the estrangement and enthrallment of his classed identity formation, his father equal parts cautionary tale and proletarian hero. As an adult, ‘putting on the working man’s shirt’ came to feel duplicitous once Springsteen ‘hit the big time,’ but he is repeatedly driven to revisit the neighborhood of his youth–not simply as a sentimental touchstone of his ‘past’ but, as he comes to see, a perpetual community that throbs inside of him.
As Tim Strangleman and Sherry Linkon note of deindustrialization narratives, the children of mid-twentieth century manual workers face a profoundly transformed local landscape and often describe their own grief, anger, and nostalgia over what their families have lost. Born to Run functions in part as a working-class autobiography because his class heritage–and its literal erasure in his hometown’s closed factories–equally informs his polarized sense of self. The book’s photographs of Springsteen’s favorite local music clubs—his teenage haunts and stages–serve as their own kind of postindustrial memorials of working–class cultural spaces that no longer exist. As he looks back on the threshold of his profoundly transformed class circumstances, he recalls: “I didn’t want out. I wanted in. … I wanted to understand. What were the social forces that held my parents’ lives in check? … I was determined to be the enlightened, compassionate voice of reason and revenge” (264).
However, the memoir reveals that he only gradually reckons with the gendering of this ‘reauthenticated’ class self. Studies of deindustrialized communities pinpoint the loss of traditional masculinity, along with class pride, when manual labor vanishes. Springsteen frequently associates being off the road with bouts of depression, and given his understanding of stage performance as a highly masculinized mode of labor alongside his E Street ‘brotherhood,’ he may also have experienced his non-touring life as a kind of emasculation. He recalls his father’s taunts of being feminine or ‘queer’ when he was a long-haired, introspective teenager. “When my dad looked at me,” he writes, “he didn’t see what he needed to see” (28). But he also recognizes that his father actually saw the qualities that he himself repressed due to normative gender codes that held sway at the mill and the tavern. Still, it takes him far too long—into his late thirties–to understand that women are actually human beings.
After retrospectively grappling with his illness, his fame, and his fear and disrespect of the feminine, the memoir finally foregrounds a narrative mode of healing–what Springsteen calls “repair”:
In my twenties, as my song and my story began to take shape, I searched for the voice I would blend with mine to do the telling. It is a moment when through creativity and will you can rework, repossess and rebirth the conflicting voices of your childhood, to turn them into something alive, powerful and seeking light. I’m a repairman. That’s part of my job. So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life … put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work. (414)
Earlier in the autobiography, we glimpse what initially seems a far more literal mode of repair: young Bruce joins his grandfather for their weekly “trash night,” where they search garbage bins for broken radios to fix at his grandfather’s shop. He watches the process—‘exchanging bad tubes for good’–and waits for the coming transfiguration: “that instant when the whispering breath, the beautiful low static hum and warm … glow of electricity will come surging back into the dead skeleton of radios we have pulled from extinction” (8-9). As Springsteen wistfully notes, in that space and moment, “the resurrection is real.”
The scene, however, also clearly anticipates a later, more arduous job of reclaiming apparent ‘detritus’ to rebuild a psyche, reclaim a life, from a multitude of “conflicting voices.” Figuratively taking on his father’s uniform, Springsteen adopts the working-class practice and aesthetic of “salvage,” drawing from a host of competing influences and experiences to “will” his own recovery into being—and with it, that of his familial and class community. He “seeks light” by drilling down into the “darkness” of his private past and, most importantly, in his willingness to be publicly vulnerable about what he has found. Turning once more to his father, he recounts the troubled lessons that propelled so much of his life’s arc:
The rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of ‘manhood’ 1950s’-style. An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your own terms or not at all. You always withhold some thing, you do not lower your mask. … The rituals of the barroom. A misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained (413).
Through telling the ‘underside’ of his life story—to his analyst, his wife, and finally his readers–the Boss comes to embrace the domestic, and ultimately self, intimacy he once found terrifying. Born to Run culminates in Springsteen’s most significant achievement: recognizing deep, unguarded emotion not as weakness but as a valuable form of knowledge, interpersonal ethics, and perhaps a more meaningful form of class politics.
Pamela Fox teaches women’s and working-class literature and culture at Georgetown University. She has written about British working-class novels, American country music, and most recently, Jackie Kay’s transracial adoption memoir writing.